Perhaps no team needed a coach or quarterback who can roll with the punches quite like Oregon.
While Ohio State has coped with injuries at the most visible position, Oregon has spent all season dealing with absences chipping away at its roster. The Ducks’ roster lost its first pieces in the preseason, and the trend continued into the week before the national championship game.
The failed drug test from wide receiver Darren Carrington means Oregon will be without four receivers and tight ends from its post-spring depth chart, not to mention 2013 starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone.
If Oregon looks like a team that doesn’t seem to be rattled by these key absences, pay attention to the demeanor of the two men at the Ducks’ key leadership positions at head coach and quarterback.
For sure, Ohio State has the same steady hand. So did Alabama, Florida State and any other team in contention for the semifinals at the end of the season.
As it does nearly everywhere else in its program, Oregon does this a little differently.
Mark Helfrich is unlike most coaches at power programs. He’s not a control freak like Nick Saban. He’s not someone who seems like he’ll burn out like Urban Meyer once did. Though he’s been repeatedly questioned about the fortitude of his team, he’s not as defensive as Jimbo Fisher has been at times this season.
And most important, he doesn’t share the kind of acerbic tone that marked his predecessor Chip Kelly.
He doesn’t have the tightly wound demeanor that seems to be a prerequisite to lead a national championship contender in 2015.
When a reporter asked Ohio State coach Urban Meyer how the Buckeyes’ would stop Oregon’s tempo offense, Helfrich interjected: “Be specific, please.” Earlier this season — in the controlled environment of a postgame press conference — a middle school student reporter explained that at his Catholic school there are three important things: “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota.” Helfrich, of course, rolled with it.
Imagine Saban in such an exchange.
Helfrich is a normal guy in an abnormal profession. You wonder what it might take to tick this guy off.
But this can be deceiving.
"His personality has a tendency to hide how fierce a competitor he is,” said Jim Palazzolo, Helfrich’s college coach at NAIA Southern Oregon. “He just seems to be able to internalize that and maintain his sense of humor, his glibness. He’s very, very consistent.”
Consistency is the same hallmark of Helfrich’s quarterback and not just because Marcus Mariota completes nearly 70 percent of his passes and rarely throws an interception.
Mariota is nearly as prolific as his Heisman predecessors. His image, though, isn’t as easy to define. Whether by their sideline demeanors or outward leadership (or flirtations with controversy), the last four Heisman winners — Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton — all had a distinct personas.
They enjoyed being superstars. For Mariota, it seems like a bother. Before the Rose Bowl — to say nothing of Saturday’s championship media day — he seemed exhausted from the media circuit. After the season, he went from the awards ceremony in Orlando, to the Heisman ceremony and the Late Show with David Letterman in New York. After a break for Christmas in his home state of Hawaii, he went to three straight days in front of cameras for Rose Bowl prep.
He looked miserable.
“I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I was looking forward to this being done,” Mariota said in his final media session before the semifinal win over Florida State.
On the field, Mariota was the same steady had he’d been all year, even though he lost his fastest receiver, Devon Allen, on the opening kickoff.
The stoicism is by design.
When he was the quarterback at the Saint Louis School in Honolulu, Mariota was the type who’d drop his head and unhook his chin strap after a bad play. Playing high school games under a Jumbotron, though, will give a young quarterback a quick lesson in body language.
“We played Aloha Stadium, so we had all the cameras,” said Darnell Arceneaux, Mariota’s high school coach who is now quarterbacks coach at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “We said, if you make a bad play or we have a three and out or the receiver drops it, the camera goes on two people, the head coach and the quarterback. When your teammates see you on that Jumbotron, that’s contagious.”
Arceneaux watched Mariota throw an interception against Florida State, not long after another would-be pick bounced off the hands of Seminoles safety Jalen Ramsey. Mariota never lost his cool.
“In that Rose Bowl, he throws that pick and you didn’t see that chin strap or that head go down,” Arceneaux said. “You saw a kid who let one get away and he worked through it.”
Indeed, Oregon has a coach-quarterback combination that’s not the norm for top contenders, not that it was ever unquestioned
Though he left Southern Oregon in 1995, Palazzolo never left the region. He’s a loan officer in Medford, Ore., and he heard the doubts about Helfric taking over Kelly’s program. Oregon had been on an upward trajectory ever since Rich Brooks led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in 1994. Kelly took Oregon to its first national title game and made the Ducks a perennial contender.
Helfrich, an internal hire who might not have been a top candidate for any other top program in the country, was not viewed as the guy who would be able to lead the Ducks to the next step, a national championship.
“Chip was larger than life,” Palazzolo said. “He was progressive and new wave and his personality was distinct. That would be the nicest way to put it. There was a lot of speculation on who would replace Chip.”
The doubts persisted as Oregon finished 7-2 in the Pac-12 last season, losing a shot at the Pac-12 title with a 26-20 loss to Stanford and a rare loss to a major underdog in Arizona.
Did 2014 mark major growth for Helfrich as a coach? The results say that might be the case, but having Mariota healthy for an entire season doesn’t hurt. Still, players say Helfrich is a little more comfortable in his own shoes.
For all of his offensive wizardry, Kelly was distant. Helfrich’s softer hand is a welcome change.
“Not saying Coach Kelly didn't love his players, but Coach Helfrich’s door is always open," Mariota said. "He's always the guy that's asking how your family is doing, how you're doing.”
Oregon is a program without yelling, offensive coordinator Scott Frost says. He says players have more fun in the Oregon program
And maybe that’s the way it’s going to need to be done for some programs.
Coaches and players are pulled in more directions than ever before. With every misstep on and off the field documented, scrutiny is at an all-time high. Not every key player will be as — and this is not a bad thing — dull as Mariota.
The coach and quarterback who remains steady and rolls with the punches may be at an advantage.
“His personality lent itself to making that transition,” Palazzolo said. “The pressure was there, it was transparent. Somehow he was able to internalize all that stuff. I don’t think he felt like he was overcoming anything. He just had to put his own blueprint on this thing.”